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India's R&D: Reaching for the Top

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Science  04 Mar 2005:
Vol. 307, Issue 5714, pp. 1415-1417
DOI: 10.1126/science.1110729
Raghunath A. Mashelkar India

Raghunath A. Mashelkar began life in poverty, sometimes hungry and shoeless. Now he is the director general of the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), a chain of 38 publicly funded industrial R&D institutions in India, and president of the Indian National Science Academy. That personal experience of ascendance from dire circumstances, improvements in his country's infrastructure, and changing patterns of scientific emigration and immigration have convinced him that India is fated to become one of the world's greatest intellectual and economic engines. Before becoming a leading architect of his country's science and technology policies, Dr. Mashelkar did pioneering work in polymer science and engineering, which earned him many international laurels. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society (London), a Fellow of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS), and a Foreign Fellow of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering. Dubbed a “dangerous optimist” in India, he is deeply committed to championing the cause of the developing world. He is also known in India for several high-powered “Mashelkar Committees,” which have influenced such societal sectors as higher education, drug regulatory systems, and national automobile fuel policy.


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Five years ago, during my presidential address to the Indian Science Congress, I made a prediction: “The next century will belong to India, which will become a unique intellectual and economic power to reckon with, recapturing all its glory, which it had in the millennia gone by,” I told the gathering of 5000, among them the country's prime minister.

It must have sounded crazy. How could a country with so many impoverished people, and so many illiterates, rise to have such a central global role? What possibly could have given me the confidence to make such a prediction?

The confidence came from a little boy. In the late 1950s, this boy struggled to have two meals a day while he studied under the streetlights and went barefoot to school. This same boy almost left school in 1960, because his poor widowed mother could not support his education. That this boy, who is myself, could become the president of the Indian Science Congress is what gave me the confidence to say that India could again achieve intellectual and economic greatness. If this miracle could happen to any Indian, then given an opportunity, it can happen to every Indian.

My own turn toward science began at a poor school in Mumbai (the local name for Bombay). I remember Principal Bhave, who taught us physics. One day, he took us outside the classroom to demonstrate how to find the focal length of a convex lens. He focused the sun's rays onto a piece of paper and told us that the distance between the paper and the lens was the focal length. Then he held the lens in place until the paper burned. That's when he turned to me and said, “Mashelkar, if you can focus your energies like this and not diffuse them, you can burn anything in the world!” I decided at that moment to become a scientist.

I indeed focused on my goal, invariably placing first in my classes. After earning a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Bombay University in 1966, I received fellowship offers for graduate study in the United States and Canada. But I decided to remain in India to pursue my studies toward a Ph.D. I did postdoctoral research in the United Kingdom, held a faculty position there, and then had a brief stint in the United States as a visiting professor. But in the mid-1970s, when attractive offers came my way for faculty positions in top schools in the United States and United Kingdom, I decided to return to India.

In this essay, I focus on the importance of returnees to poor countries such as India. I will examine how demographic shifts are creating shortages of skilled scientists and engineers in developed economies and leading to a new dynamic in human capital that is enabling some developing countries to emerge as “global R&D hubs.” I also address ways in which global funding sources can be leveraged in such countries to create new knowledge devoted to the global good.

Intellectual Capital

Let me first address the issue of migration of talented students from the developing world to the developed world. In 1926, the distribution of scientific productivity was analyzed by Alfred J. Lotka of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in New York. The result of his investigation, which remains largely valid, was an inverse square law of productivity, by which the number of people producing n papers is inversely proportional to n2. This means that for every 100 authors who produce, say, one paper in a given period of time, there are approximately 100/22, or 25 authors, who produce two papers and one author, who will produce 10 papers. Thirty years later, the same law was found to be applicable to patents.

This means that the bulk of scientific and technological creativity and productivity lies in the minds and abilities of a small number of highly talented individuals. Since India gained independence in 1947, the country has consistently lost such individuals to the developed world. The country's leaders comforted themselves by assuming that the number of scientific émigrés was too small for a country of 1 billion people to worry about. But they were not considering Lotka's law and so did not realize that by losing the top tier of talent, we also lost most of our intellectual energy.

Indica-tions of things to come.

The Indica car, first designed and built in India for Indians in the 1990s, now is selling in European markets.


A recent report by the United Nations Development Programme* estimates that 100,000 Indian professionals leave the country every year to take up jobs in the United States. If one considers the potential economic gains, which these exceptionally talented people could have brought to India, one realizes that the economic losses due to this mass migration are enormous.

Invariably it is assumed that the main driving force for the brain drain is economic. People go to the developed world in search of a higher income, so the theory goes. But I do not think material gain is the only reason. After all, according to a recent study by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the number of scientists and engineers who left Japan to work in the United States and who did not return jumped by 100% between 1995 and 1999. Yet Japan, unlike India, already is a developed country with many high-paying jobs. The Italian scientist Riardo Giacconi, a Nobel Laureate in Physics, summed up what might be the most important factor behind such a brain drain when he said: “A scientist is like a painter. Michelangelo became a great artist, because he had been given a wall to paint. My wall was given to me by the United States.”

Only now are such walls becoming available in developing countries, but for reasons that could not have been anticipated 10 years ago.

This past December, I visited the John F. Welch Technology Centre in Bangalore. With 2300 employees, it is General Electric's (GE's) largest single location for R&D in the world. I found that 700 of the employees were young Indians, who had chosen to come back to India from the United States during the preceding 3 to 4 years. GE is not alone in setting up shop in India. More than 100 global companies including IBM, Motorola, and Intel have established R&D centers in India during the past 5 years, and more are coming. Many Indians who received their training and early work experiences abroad are now returning to India to work in these research centers. There is a silent scientific repatriation taking place in India.

Why are the foreign companies, some of whom have budgets larger than India's entire $6 billion R&D budget, moving a sizable portion of their R&D infrastructures to India? I was present in Bangalore, 5 years ago, when the John. F. Welch Technology Centre was set up. When Welch, who then was still GE's chief operating officer, was asked why he was taking this step, he replied: “India is a developing country, but it is a developed country as far as its intellectual infrastructure is concerned. We get the highest intellectual capital per dollar here.”

One way to understand what Welch meant is to calculate the number of scientific research publications the country produces per dollar that is spent on R&D in India. Using the data provided by Sir David King (chief scientific adviser to the UK government) for scientific publications in major, peer-reviewed journals (SCI publications), I calculated the number of journal publications per gross domestic product (GDP) per capita per year. The top three nations were India (31.7), China (23.32), and the United States (7.0). John Welch's intuition was right!

My calculation has to be viewed carefully, of course. After all, the percentage of all global SCI publications produced by India and China is less than 2% each. But this also means that if India and China were to increase their science and technology ranks by several fold (which they are perfectly capable of doing) and invest more per scientist (which already is happening), then it is possible for both countries to enhance their competitiveness several fold. Indeed, if we apply Lotka's law of scientific productivity, India's and China's competitive advantage ought to increase by several orders of magnitude as more and more of the most talented scientists return. In this way, by shifting much of their R&D activity to countries such as India and China, the world's industries can greatly bolster the domestic intellectual capital of these countries.

Scientific Repatriation

As the direction of the brain drain shifts away from developed countries, rather than toward them, shortages in R&D personnel in developed economies are likely to arise. And as that happens, there will be a greater drive toward multiple geographical and organizational sources of technology. The impact of such shortages can be seen by citing an example from the European Union (EU). For the EU to meet the goal set at the 2002 Barcelona Summit of increasing R&D spending as a share of GDP to 3% by 2010, the EU will have to add 700,000 new researchers to the workforce. As one EU representative put it recently, there will be a greater draw on “Third World researchers.” As the professional opportunities and personal comforts in their own countries increase, however, will these researchers prefer migrating to Europe or working in their own countries?

The incentive to stay put is greater than ever. When I returned to India in 1976, the personal comforts and professional opportunities there were unbelievably limited. I remember having to endure a 3-year waiting list to get my first telephone, a 2-year wait to buy a scooter, and a 6-month wait to buy a black-and-white TV. Today you can walk into a showroom and choose from among 20 TV models. And millions of mobile phones now are sold in India every month.

Now consider the professional side. In my earlier career as a scientist, it took me 2 years to buy a special type of flow meter that I needed for my work on polymers. It was a struggle to gain access to even a rudimentary computer. And scientific journals used to arrive by sea mail, which made it hard for us to remain up-to-date on current research. Now we have our own supercomputers and, thanks to the cyber world, our scientists read Science at the same time as their American counterparts!

Tradition's future.

Researchers in India are scouring traditional remedies, like this miraculous fish treatment for asthma, for clues to new medicines.


Most importantly, today's returnees to India are finding that the opportunity to do cutting-edge research has increased many fold compared to what it was when I returned in the 1970s. The latest Intel chip and the latest GE aeroengine are being designed in Bangalore, for example. True, these are multinational companies with headquarters outside of India, but India-based companies are changing too. For one thing, on 1 January 2005, India enacted a new patent regime that is compliant with the World Trade Organization's TRIPS (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights) agreement, which establishes a set of rules to ensure that intellectual property rights are respected in international trade contexts.

In anticipation of the new challenges that will follow in the wake of this action, Indian drug and pharmaceutical industries have increased their R&D spending by 400% in the past 4 years, and they are now looking to hire hundreds of Ph.D.'s. They also are shifting toward more in-house innovative research. Rather than just copying drug molecules made by others, the R&D programs of these industries now are trying to create new therapeutic molecules. In a similar fashion, the Indian automobile industry now is exporting indigenously designed and manufactured cars such as the Indica to European markets.

Global Goods

Multinational companies are locating their R&D resources in India to create proprietary knowledge for private good—that is, for the stockholders—through private funding. However, my dream is to create a global knowledge pool for global good through global funding. Here, India can become an agent for change. This global-good perspective could become the case in diverse sectors ranging from biotechnology to information technology to space research.

This dream already has some momentum. First, consider a pedagogical tool, the computer-based functional literacy (CBFL) program, developed by Indian software pioneer Faqir Chand Kohli. Within a mere 8 to 10 weeks and at a cost of a mere U.S. $2 (provided a discarded computer is supplied for free), an illiterate adult using this tool can read his or her first newspaper. In the past 2 years alone, 40,000 adults from five states in India have been made literate. If CBFL is launched as the technical engine of a national literacy movement, in less than 5 years, 200 million adult illiterates can learn to read. The same Indian innovation could be of great service to the rest of the world's estimated 854 million illiterates too! To this end, the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras has created a low-cost wireless Internet access system that needs no modem and eliminates expensive copper lines. It is just what is needed to offer CBFL to low-income communities throughout India and beyond. The technology already is in use in many countries, among them Fiji, Yemen, Nigeria, and Tunisia, to name a few, and it has been licensed to manufacturers in India, Brazil, China, South Africa, and France.

India can similarly become an innovation hub for global health. Its reputation as a low-cost manufacturer of high-quality generic drugs already is high. Now discovery, development, and delivery of new drugs to the poor is another area in which India is becoming stronger. By following alternative paths rather than beaten ones, India is aiming to develop drugs at prices that are more affordable to more of the world's people. For instance, India is trying to build a golden triangle between traditional medicine, modern medicine, and modern science. By culling clues from traditional medical practices, researchers here are doing a sort of “reverse pharmacology,” which is showing great promise. Our recent program on developing a treatment for psoriasis through a reverse pharmacology path (presently in phase II human clinical trials) is expected to take 5 years and cost $5 million. If successful, the resulting treatment will be priced at $50, quite a step down from a new $20,000 antibody injection treatment developed by a western biopharmaceutical company! The opportunities that are unfolding are breathtaking.

As I see it from my perch in India's science and technology leadership, if India plays its cards right, it can become by 2020 the world's number-one knowledge production center, creating not only valuable private goods but also much needed public goods that will help the growing global population suffer less and live better.


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